Sweet romcom delves into arranged marriage debate
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In this sweet but slight romantic comedy, London-based documentary filmmaker Zoe Stevenson (Lily James) is looking for a new project when she learns that childhood friend and neighbour Kazim Khan (Shazad Latif), now a 30-something doctor, plans to opt for a traditional assisted marriage.
Kaz sees an important life decision. Zoe sees her next documentary.
The emotional missteps and miscommunications that follow could have been put together by ChatGPT’s AI, but then, rom-coms aren’t really expected to be unpredictable. Fans of the genre will recognize riffs on When Harry Met Sally… crossed with the distinctive Brit vibe of films like Bridget Jones’s Diary.
It’s no coincidence that one of the titles for Zoe’s proposed film is Love Contractually.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? does bring in some fresh perspectives in its cross-cultural take on the guy-next-door story. Jemima Goldsmith Khan, an experienced producer (We Steal Secrets, The Clinton Affair) makes her scripting debut here, and she could be drawing on personal experience as the ex-wife of cricketer and former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.
Director Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth) adds a vivid sense of place, both in London and in the sequences set in Lahore.
Kaz hopes to find a wife with the help of his parents and a Muslim matchmaking service. Marriage is about more than two people, he tells Zoe. It’s also about faith, family, community, culture.
And he’s seen arranged marriages work, in the affectionate, supportive union of his parents, who met for the first time on their wedding day.
Zoe can’t quite accept this, but her advocacy for swoony romantic love and wide-open choice is undercut somewhat by her own dire dating life, which involves bad Tinder matches and worse bar pickups.
Khan’s approach is unabashedly fizzy and feel-good, though she includes some of the complexities Kaz experiences as a second-generation Briton navigating between cultures, as well as the ugly realities of Islamophobia.
When Zoe is surprised by Kaz’s decision, suggesting that as modern-day Londoners who grew up next door to each other, their lives are pretty much the same, Kaz points out that he constantly gets questions about where he’s really from, that he’s referred to as “British-born, which is really a code for ‘non-white.’”
Referring to their street addresses, Kaz tells Zoe, “There’s a continent between No. 47 and No. 49.”
There’s some brisk, crisp comedy with the minor characters, with funny drop-ins from comedian and actor Asim Chaudry as matchmaker Mo and comedy duo Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen as film company execs who can be seen ticking imaginary boxes in response to Zoe’s pitches (“Diverse content — tick! Female director — tick!”).
Emma Thompson goes broadly humorous as Zoe’s eccentric mom, Cath, who says vaguely well-intentioned but wildly inappropriate things when attending Khan family celebrations (“It’s so exotic!”). Shabana Azmi gets more poignant scenes as Kaz’s mother, Aisha.
But the role of Kaz’s prospective bride, Maymouna (Sajal Ali), is thankless, and James (Oliver Chris), the nice-guy veterinarian Cath has been pushing for Zoe in her own version of assisted marriage, doesn’t fare much better.
Still, any romantic comedy stands or falls with the two leads. James, whose rom-com experience ranges from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is effortlessly watchable, and Latif has loads of low-key charm. (The British actor is best known in North America for Star Trek: Discovery, but Toast of London fans will recognize him as the much-introduced Clem Fandango.)
The rapport between them, which goes back the shared treehouse of their childhood, feels real, but their individual characters are underwritten. It’s never really clear why the rational, cautious Kaz thinks he and Maymouna might be a good fit, while the reasons for Zoe’s insecurities and fears, her self-destructive relationship patterns, remain fuzzy.
But if the story’s obstacles and slotted-in plot points can feel a little forced, the underlying emotions manage to win out. As Kaz and Zoe rassle with questions of pragmatism and passion, the film nudges closer to a wistfully sweet ending that manages to combine a bit of both.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.